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Noirvember Film Series #7:
“High and Low” (1963) directed by Akira Kurosawa is the second of his exploration into the genre of film noir, and it delivers. This film is originally titled “天国と地獄,” “Tengoku to Jigoku,” which literally translates to “Heaven and Hell.” As is the other noir in this series, “The Bad Sleep Well” (1960), this film stars Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai and Kyōko Kagawa – the directors frequent collaborators. This film is loosely based on the 1959 novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain, which puts the protagonist in an impossible situation which has him questioning his own morally, friendship and personal responsibility.
The film starts with Kingo Gondo – often referred to as Mr. Gongo (a mustachioed Mifune), as he is just completing a long-awaited deal with National Shoes – a company he intends to own as he as continually placed higher interest on its affairs over the years. After blindsiding the previous owners, he smugly shares his excitement with his wife and close friends – but it is short-lived. He receives an anonymous phone call informing him that his son has been kidnapped, and the ransom amount that is being asked is $30 million. This is a startling, unprecedented amount, but one he will undoubtedly pay for his own family. However, matters are complicated when it is realized that it was not his own son that was kidnapped but the son of his best friend. Now, he must sacrifice his fortune and the well-being of his family, giving up all his means, for the life of his son.
It feels like an obvious solution, but the matters are far more complicated by the time period and government intervention. With no one buying him out of the debt it would put him in to pay this sum, Mr. Gongo would be leaving his wife and son impoverished in order to potentially appease the monster on the other line. Would his sum of money even save his friends boy? Would he ever be able to care for his family again once this is over? Much of the film considers the realities of a decision like this behind closed doors and then thoughtfully juxtaposes it to the public reaction to such a thing – one in which no one is personally affected but whose opinion bears much weight.
It is a brilliantly suspenseful and enthralling piece of cinema that should not be overlooked. The cinematography (by _ ) is galliant, with each scene showing wide open corridors and eccentrically “rich” spaces that are set up against impoverished, dusty areas. It is a commentary on the rich versus the poor. It is a commentary on values and morality. It is done so intimately and smartly that it never feels judgmental or cynical – just matter-of-fact, allowing audiences to be faced with their own priorities and contemplate the difficulties of such black or white thinking.
Akira Kurosawa never shies away from an epic tale, but his power lies in his ability to drive a long-running film with emotional storytelling not relying on action or violence to make a statement. He makes powerful cinema that focuses on human emotion and the nature of mankind, our selfishness and our complexity which he seems to understand to the nth degree. All the performances are astounding, but effortless, and in American culture, it appears that Kurosawa deserves more praise than he gets. Much known for “Seven Samurai,” the reality is that he was setting the stage for many intricate crime dramas that we have all grown to love from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Nicholas Winding Refn, Ridley Scott and more.